Xenoblade Chronicles 3D review: hard knock life

Game Info
Platform Wii, New Nintendo 3DS
Publisher Nintendo
Developer Monolith Software
Release Date May 6, 2012

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D is a slow burn.

True to the Japanese role-playing game genre, it weaves through complicated plot points and cliches in an effort to play out an epic, sometimes seemingly never-ending adventure. But this is a journey players might have taken before — Xenoblade Chronicles was released for the Wii in North America in 2012, two years after its initial launch in Japan. With Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, Monolith Soft is porting the game exclusively to the New Nintendo 3DS XL.

Xenoblade Chronicles was well-loved in its first iteration, and it feels even more at home as a handheld title. Make no mistake — there's very little to be gained in terms of new ideas. But game's original strengths found in its battles and immense, gorgeous world make this a game worth revisiting — or picking up for the first time.

Xenoblade's story is easier to keep up with than it sounds

Xenoblade Chronicles begins as both a tale of revenge and a quest for answers about a mysterious sword called the Monado. But to understand its present-day story, you need to first know its lore. Eons before the events of Xenoblade Chronicles, two great, god-like beings known as the Bionis and the Mechonis waged eternal war. Eventually, both beings perished in the battle, and the corpse of the Bionis became the world in which our heroes reside. The Mechonis is home to the Mechon — hostile machine creatures that brutally attack the residents of the Bionis. After hero Shulk's home town is attacked, he leaves on a journey of vengeance.

Xenoblade's story, once established, is easier to keep up with than it first sounds. Shulk and his friends are simple characters with transparent motivations. Shulk wants to make the Mechonis pay; his best friend Reyn feels similarly, but can't let his buddy adventure alone; Sharla is happy to support their cause after the pair saves her loved ones from Mechon, and so forth. This is a shallow cast with few truly interesting characters to be found, but the game's twisting narrative at least kept me invested.

I can say with a sigh of relief that it's neither the story nor the characters that make this game good, but the system by which you control them. Like most role-playing games, Xenoblade divvies up your time between cutscenes, world exploration and battles, and it's in these last two pieces that the game really hits its stride.

xenoblade art 1

Xenoblade's real-time battle system is complex, even a little unfriendly at first blush. You control only one character in a fight, and they'll perform basic attacks on their own. Your job, then, is to time and deliver special skills to impair enemies or perform heavy damage. As you perform these hits successfully, you build a three-bar gauge. There are a couple ways to use these charges.

You'll sometimes be given the chance to "see into the future," or predict an enemy's attack and burn a bar to prevent the action from happening. Although this is an interesting idea, and a cool way to incorporate the famed power of the Monado into everyday battles, you have no control over when you'll have these visions. It's often boring and breaks up the flow of battle — and, in more frustrating scenarios — proves useless when you don't have a filled gauge. A far more useful way to spend your charges are by performing party attacks or resurrecting allies. Xenoblade doesn't use in-battle items to heal or help allies, so your only hope is to use the skills you have to a successful end. It's pretty damn hard.

I've died more in Xenoblade than in any other JRPG I've ever played. That's not an exaggeration. I died in boss fights, and I died in casual on-field encounters. I died after accidentally attracting the attention of too many enemies and from really mean, lone foes. Xenoblade is not the kind of game where you can zone out and level grind; it demands your attention with every single fight. This would be frustrating, except that the game is aware of its difficulty and does you a kindness: when you die, there is no game over. You simply start from the nearest checkpoint with all your levels intact.

Xenoblade doesn't punish you for trying, and in turn this is one of the game's greatest strengths. When I got stuck on boss fights, it invigorated me to keep going because I had nothing to lose. In the case of fights with multiple enemies, I sometimes even benefitted by leveling up on otherwise failed attempts.

xenoblade screen 2

The game's leveling system adds another layer of complexity to its already deep system. Each character learns traits or abilities through a unique skill tree; there are only three paths and they're fairly straightforward. However, as you build affinities with other characters through conversation or battle, you can helpfully borrow select skills. Taking the hands-on approach one step further is the ability to individually level moves by spending AP points gained in battle — thus helping to progress each character in a satisfying way.

There's a lot to unpack in Xenoblade Chronicles, which is a massive game in almost every way. Its story is long and carries on well past the 50 hours+ mark. I gave up early on trying to complete any significant portion of the game's side quests, and it offers tons of tiny character building moments through special "heart-to-heart" conversations — chats triggered by specific characters and places, if their affinity for one another is high enough. That's to say nothing of its inventory system, which allows you to slot in special gems (which you can craft yourself) to increase stats.

The world itself is huge, and thankfully explorable with fast-travel once you've unlocked landmarks. Xenoblade has a lot of beautiful things to look at in terms of its environments, that same care doesn't seem to be present in its cast. Designs often appear muddy and muted, especially when it comes to character faces. There's something downright creepy about everyone's eyes in this game, which have a glossy, dead-doll look.

Wrap Up:

In portable form, Xenoblade Chronicles has more room to breathe

I could go on for hours about the finer details of Xenoblade, but I won’t. It's an impressive game in terms of depth and sheer scope. When the game first launched for Wii, I was quickly overwhelmed and lost interest. As a handheld title, I felt more encouraged to take my time with it, and with time to breathe, the things it does well are much easier to see.

Xenoblade Chronicles 3D was reviewed using an advance retail copy and New 3DS hardware provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.

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8.0 New Nintendo 3DS